Month: February 2013

How to Stop Being Allergic to Practice

The main problem with practice is that we all have a powerful instinct to avoid it.

There’s a perfectly good reason for this: your unconscious brain. Practice involves spending lots of energy struggling for an uncertain payoff, and your unconscious brain really, really dislikes spending energy for uncertain payoffs.

After all, evolution built your brain to behave like an ultra-conservative banker — investing energy only when there’s a clear, tangible benefit. As a result, we’re all natural-born geniuses at coming up with excuses not to practice, or to cut corners, or to skip it and hope things work out.

All of which is why you might want to check out these three videos by Torin Bakke, a teenage clarinetist from Illinois. Back in 2009, when he was 11, Torin had an idea: he started tracking his hours of practice, and videotaping himself at each new benchmark. (For more, here’s Torin’s blog.)

So here’s Torin at 200 hours (okay, he sounds decent for a beginner)


And at 1,000 hours (wow, he’s made a massive leap)


And at 3,000 hours (holy sh*t!)

I like Torin’s method because it’s 1) simple to do, and 2) it provides a nice way to highlight the payoff of progress. Seen day to day, progress feels like frustratingly slow baby steps. Seen with this method, the cumulative power of those baby steps is crystal clear.

Here are a few other ideas I’ve seen people use to defeat their practice aversion:

  • Be like Torin: Make a habit of tracking progress, using journals or video.
  • Be early: Build a habit of practicing early in the morning, so nothing can get in the way.
  • Build “on-ramps”: Surround yourself with behavioral cues that nudge you toward practice. If you’re a runner, keep your running shoes next to your bed, so you put them on each morning. Same with violin, or soccer ball, or math book — the point is to design your space so that practice can happen with a minimum of willpower.

Finally, does anybody else know of other people who are tracking their practice and recording their progress in this way? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Stop Judging Talent; Start Nurturing Character

Sorry to break this to you, but you are a pretty bad judge of talent.

It’s not your fault. We’re all bad at judging talent because we instinctively tend to overrate the visible stuff (performance), and underrate the invisible stuff we call “character” — namely work habits, competitiveness, ambition, and grit — which turn out to be far more important over the long run.

Take Sunday’s Oscars, for instance, where the big winner was “Argo” director/producer/star Ben Affleck. That would be the same Ben Affleck who, a few years ago, was known mostly for making a series of spectacularly mediocre movies, including 2003’s “Gigli,” which has been hailed by reviewers as possibly the worst movie of all time.

So were we all wrong about Affleck’s talents? Absolutely, because we made the same old mistake: we were distracted by the visible, and ignored what really matters.

Nowhere is this more true than at this week’s NFL combine, that annual festival of bad judgement. Hundreds of top college players are brought in to be measured — to leap, run, lift weights, and take intelligence tests. Teams then use these measures and other sophisticated scouting techniques to determine the players’ value in the draft… and then proceed to get it wrong with spectacular consistency.

Some teams, however, consistently manage to avoid this trap. One of them is the New England Patriots and their coach Bill Belichick. How? In part, because they’ve figured out an efficient way to test for character.

Here’s how it typically works: at the combine, Belichick invites the prospect to the team’s hotel room. The athlete walks in, Belichick says a brisk hello, clicks off the lights, then pushes PLAY on a video of one of the player’s worst moments of the previous season: a major screwup. Then Belichick turns to the prospect and asks, “So what happened there?”

Belichick not really interested in what happened on the field, of course. He’s interested in how the player reacts to adversity. How does their brain handle failure? Do they take responsibility, or make excuses? Do they blame others, or talk about what they’d do differently? (One player started ripping into his coach, and Belichick flicked on the lights and ended the interview right there — possibly saving his franchise millions.)

The idea is not just to weed out players with the wrong mindset, but also to identify those who have the right one. Players like this skinny, incredibly slow, unathletic quarterback (below), who developed into one of the all-time greats.

The challenge for most of us is that most of the time, we behave exactly like those NFL teams. We’re easily distracted by brilliant performance, and we naturally forget to pay attention to those quieter things that really matter in the long run. So here are a few ideas on how to do that:

  • Highlight daily work and repetition. For instance, some music programs create a “100-Day Club” for people who practice for a hundred consecutive days.
  • Track effort. Some coaches rate players after each practice on their effort and hustle from 1-5, and post those publicly, so everybody can see. Is there a way to do that in music or academics?
  • Look for small signs of initiative, and celebrate them. Whenever a learner comes to practice with new ideas, or inquires how they can get better, or spends unexpected time working on their own to improve a skill, treat that as a big moment. Because it is.

Warning: This Video May Be Addictive

A couple days ago, a reader named Casey Wheel sent me a link to this conversation between Jack White and Conan O’Brien. I clicked, figuring I’d watch a couple minutes.

Uh, wrong.

An hour later, I’m still watching. And taking notes. And rewinding.

Consider that your warning. This is two craftsmen at the top of their games, trading tips and ideas — on the underrated role of hard work, on how upholstering is like making music, and on why Bob Dylan enjoys welding. It’s wonderful.

(Besides, it’s the weekend. What else were you going to do?)

Make Your Future Self Happy: Guest Post by My Daughter Katie (14)

Note: The other day my wife and I were talking with our fourteen-year-old daughter Katie about how she stays ahead of schoolwork and sports, and Katie told us about a strategy she came up with. I thought you might find it useful, so I asked her to write it up. Over to you, Katie:


Five simple words: Make your future self happy.

Choices are simply inevitable. We can choose to do our homework the minute we get home, or we can procrastinate. We can learn that new violin song tonight, or we can wait until tomorrow. We can choose to take risks, or we can shy away from new experiences. We can struggle, push, and yank ourselves out of our comfort zones, or we can put forth half the effort. I admit, I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to most of these things. I actually consider myself a Professional Procrastinator. After all, I’m in ninth grade. I also know that making our future selves happy ALL THE TIME isn’t realistic. However, it’s something we can all strive to do.

We all have those days when we are simply not motivated. You know what I’m talking about: those lifeless hours when our most fervent desire is to lie down and sleep. On those days, I want you to ask yourself a simple question: “would this make my future self happy?” Often times, we give into our present selves. And, every now and then, that’s okay. But, in the long run, will eating four bowls of ice cream really make you happy? Will going on Facebook instead of learning that new violin song help you reach ultimate prosperity?

Imagine your future self as a little man or woman, waving at you from somewhere in the distance. Each day, try doing one or two things that will please the future you.

I don’t doubt that you’ve heard most of this before. Don’t procrastinate, do your best, blah, blah, blah. My aim was simply to condense a page’s worth of information into a manageable sentence that will hopefully stick in your brain: make your future self happy.

And the Oscar for Best Skill-Improvement Method Goes to…

If “Zero Dark Thirty” wins the Oscar for best picture on Sunday (it’s got my vote), many will praise the movie’s gritty realism, particularly when it comes to the re-creation of the climactic raid on Bin Laden’s compound. We’ll be told how the filmmakers took pains to get everything exactly right about the Navy SEALs: their methods, their top-secret weapons, the techniques and teamwork that make them the best-performing soldiers on the planet.

But the filmmakers missed one thing. Which happens to be the most important part of the story.

The reps.

To watch the movie, you’d think the SEALs were encountering Bin Laden’s compound for the first time on the night of the raid. But in truth, they’d already experienced it, dozens and dozens of times, in training.

As this new article shows, the SEALs prepared for the raid by spending weeks training on full-scale mockups of Bin Laden’s compound — first in Harvey Point, North Carolina, then in Nevada — mockups that replicated the layout right down to every doorway, every gate, every wall.

Think about that. Day after day in combat gear, on a full-scale replica, going through every possible scenario: What if the compound is booby-trapped? What if they’re armed? What if the Pakistani troops show up? What if the helicopter goes down?  (In fact, as it turned out, one of the helicopters did go down.) When the time came, they ran the mission perfectly, because they’d built the right brains for the job.

I’d venture to guess that the filmmakers chose not to show the training for artistic reasons. After all, repetition seems kinda boring and pedestrian. But the genius of the SEALs is that they understand that the exact opposite is true. Repetition is badass.

Hey Coaches and Teachers: Quit Being Calm, and Start Getting Messy

If you’re like most people, you grow up instinctively believing that the best learning takes place in an orderly, calm environment. We want well-groomed sports fields, tidy classrooms, and customized high-tech equipment. We want our teachers and coaches to be wise authorities, standing in front of the group and smoothly delivering all the answers.

The problem, as master coach George Whitfield Jr. so vividly shows us here, is that our instincts are exactly wrong. Click the video to see why.

  • Instead of a clean, orderly field, he heads for the soft, tricky sands of the beach. (Or, in some cases, into the water.)
  • Instead of lecturing, he uses a series of short, informative, vivid soundbites: “GPS,” “Sandwich,” “Battery,” “Pull the reins,” and so on.
  • Instead of fancy equipment, he uses rakes, shovels, and beanbags, seeking out ways to replicate the chaotic, everchanging environment they’ll face in a game.
  • Instead of having an established system, he constantly innovates, creating new games and drills that are both useful and fun. (Check out how the players describe — and show — how much fun they’re having with him.)

One reason George succeeds, I think, is that he understands a basic truth: calm, orderly, authoritarian environments create passive learners. So he approaches learning as an active collaboration — a messy, stressful, individualized construction process.

In short, he approaches his job like a hacker, ignoring conventional wisdom and instead asking the simple question: what do I need to do right now, with the stuff I’ve got on hand, to make this person perform better?

Which makes me wonder: do you have any other similar examples of teacher/coach hacking that might be worth sharing?

(Big thanks to reader Trevor Parent for the heads-up)

Super Baby: the Prodigy Recipe

Meet Titus, who is not yet two years old.

Titus makes some great shots here, but for me the best moment is his smile, and his jubilant body language. Because it invokes how it all must have started.

It went something like this: Titus was crawling around, watching his older sibs play (it’s no accident that he’s the youngest of four). One day, he picked up the ball and tried to make a basket. He missed, but just the attempt caused a happy riot in the house. The kids put the ball back in his hands. Again, again! Titus’s little brain sparks with a simple and powerful connection — and from then on, he keeps on repeating, trying, trying, trying.  And then it happens: in a short time, he gets pretty good. Then really good.

These kinds of developmental accelerations often feature the the same set of ingredients — a motivational ecosystem:

  • 1) A full windshield — lots of good models to stare at and follow, and a shared identity.
  • 2) A good-size group of peers/parents to reinforce and celebrate the early attempts like crazy. Keep going! Do it again! 
  • 3) An ultra-clear game that teaches itself. Nobody needs to tell Titus that he succeeded or not — he can see the ball go through the hoop, and adjust his efforts accordingly.

Speaking of hoops: if you’re interested in great performers, you should tune into “The Tonight Show” Tuesday night. Our friend Bob Fisher of Centralia, KS, the world’s best free-throw shooter, will be showing Jay Leno his talents. Bob is incredibly skilled, and incredibly kind about sharing the impact that The Talent Code had on his skills. Best of all, Bob started training hard when he was 50 years old.

Now that’s the kind of prodigy we can relate to.

(Big thanks to RobNonStop for the heads-up.)

Why Putting on Your “Game Face” is a Bad Idea

If you saw the cellist Yo-Yo Ma a half-hour or so before one of his performances, you would see him do curious thing: he mellows out. He makes jokes; he smiles; he chats. You could easily mistake him for an audience member.

If you walked into a professional sports locker room an hour before the start of a big game, you’d be surprised by the number of athletes who are in a similarly easygoing state — playing videogames, lost in their music headphones, or, quite often, unconscious in a chair, grabbing a quick snooze.

We’re often led to believe that we should approach Big Moments — i.e. pressure-packed games, recitals, meetings — with a mindset of gritted, focused intensity that we know as “the game face.”

In fact, our instincts are wrong. In fact, practice is the right time for intensity and scowls; performance is the time for lightness and ease.

Here’s why: practice is an act of construction. It’s the place to stretch, to make mistakes and fix them. It’s the time to reach and repeat, over and over, until you’ve built the reliable skill. It’s the place to experience and embrace the effortful frustration that’s part of the building process.

Performance, on the other hand, is a very different situation. You are not trying to construct the skill; you’re are trying to employ it; to be alert, and to react to an unfolding set of possiblities. In these kinds of situations, unless you happen to be Ray Lewis, the most productive mindset tends to be a light, broad, attentive focus; one that stays in the moment, and controls the emotional ups and downs.

A beautiful example of this mindset is provided by Joe Montana, the 49ers quarterback who led 31 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career. Once, in the fourth quarter of the 1989 Super Bowl with three minutes left and his team down by three points, he unexpectedly lifted his head from the huddle and stared into the stands — he’d spotted a familiar face from television.

“Hey,” Montana said, “Isn’t that John Candy?”

His teammates were in disbelief. But it makes perfect sense, because Montana had the right game face on: relaxed, attentive, open. As the great acting coach Constantin Stanislavki put it, “The rehearsals are the work; the performance is the relaxation.”

What’s ironic (and a little insane, in my view) is that many parents and youth coaches do precisely the opposite. They treat every performance or game like it’s the Super Bowl, and treat practice as mere routine, an afterthought.

Which makes me wonder: how might that mindset be reversed? How do you de-pressurize performances and funnel intensity toward practice?  I’d love to hear any suggestions or ideas you might want to share.

PS – For more on this topic from a musician’s POV, check out this great post by educator and author Gerald Klickstein.

How to Daydream More Effectively

We all daydream. We all spend hundreds hours in a pleasantly zonked state, weaving stories about our future successes. As a small kid, my favorite daydream was winning a gold medal at the Olympics. I was a little hazy as to precisely which event — track, maybe? — but I could hear the anthem playing, and feel the weight of the gold medal around my neck.

Science has weighed in, leaving no doubt that daydreaming can be a good thing for our brains. The deeper question is, are some daydreams more useful than others, when it comes to producing motivation and real-world results? In other words, is there a smarter way to daydream?

We get a fascinating answer from Top Dog, a terrific new book about the science of competition by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (which comes out on Feb 19th, and which you should pre-order right now). Here’s the takeaway: daydreaming works best when you focus both on the goal and on the obstacles between you and the goal.

In other words, you shouldn’t daydream about the payoff, but about the whole process.

For example: one scientist studied German children about to learn English. Some students fantasized only about the benefits they’d get (“I’ll make my father proud!” “I’ll talk to the members of my favorite American band!”), while others fantasized about both the barriers and the benefits. After a semester, the first group averaged a C grade; the second averaged an A.

Another scientist studied hip-replacement patients. Some patients daydreamed about all the wonderful stuff they’d do after surgery, like running marathons and dancing; others focused on the fear, pain and difficulty of recovery as well as the benefits. After surgery, the second group had significantly more mobility and less pain.

Why? The peril of high expectations. Our brains are easily seduced by the sweetness of anticipated benefits — which means that we get demoralized by any setbacks — waitthis isn’t what’s supposed to happen!  Obstacle/benefit daydreaming, on the other hand, prepares you emotionally and tactically for the challenge ahead.

One nice way to apply this idea is the Zander Letter — named after the music educator Benjamin Zander. It works like this: before he begins teaching a new class, Zander asks the students to take out a sheet of paper, date it three months in the future, and title it: I Succeeded in this Class Because…  In the letter, they’re asked to detail the concrete steps they will take that leads to their success.

I like this method, because it can be applied to just about any project, and because it puts the learner in the right mindset for effective daydreaming. They can’t just focus on the seductive sweetness of the outcome. They also have to figure out exactly how they’re going to get there.

The Power of Fun

“Let’s make it fun.”

You hear those words a lot these days from parents, teachers, and coaches — along with words like “passion” and “engagement.”  We all know that “fun” is a key element of the learning process. We think of it as the the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. That’s part of what fuels the modern urge to provide trophies, ribbons, and ice cream to every participant in every activity — after all, it should be fun, shouldn’t it?

But is this the right way to think about it? Is “fun” really something you can add to the process?  Or is it something more?

I think we get some insights from this video. It’s about the Cochran family, which has produced ten national-level downhill skiers on their small hill behind their house in Vermont. It’s a wonderful video for a bunch of reasons, but especially for the way the four Cochran kids, now grown, describe the experience:

“It was like having a party at your house… We’d come home, rush to do our homework, and at six o’clock the lights would go on, and this magical place appeared.” 

“I don’t ever feel that my father wanted us to be World Cup racers or ever had any idea that we’d be national level racers; all I remember that it was incredibly fun. We just loved going out there.” 

I think this shows a truth that’s easy to overlook:

Fun isn’t something you add to the process — fun is the process.

Fun isn’t the sugar that gets sprinkled on top of the work — it’s baked into the work itself.

Fun isn’t really about parents or teachers or coaches at all. It’s about creating a space where learners can experience the deep fun of discovery and improvement.

(And judging by those smiles, it never goes away.)